Take on Me

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It rarely does to speculate on the lives of others and play doctor with tragedies prominent in gossip news. But of course, I have basically an outside job in based in speculation and induction and it sometimes leaks into my cinephilia. You’ve seen how I basically guessed based on circumstances and elements in Furious that Vin Diesel is an uncredited second director on that shit and I also think I have a pretty damn good idea on what led to Mickey Rourke’s departure from Seven Psychopaths and other things.

What I’m about to say is so close to consensus speculation that I don’t even think I should have any shame about it, so here goes…

Liam Neeson is way too overqualified an actor to be working the sort of B-grade Walmart action movies he does. And it’s not exactly to the degradation of him or the movie at times (in fact, I’d say The Grey is one of the man’s finest hours – but that’s for a different review one day). But everybody who was born before the year 2010 knows that the man is way the hell out of these movie’s league.

So why does he do them?

In March of 2009, Tony Award Winner Natasha Richardson had suffered a severe head injury while skiing and shortly after went into critical condition before dying at the hospital (this eerily is similar to the death of Jack Nance which I talked about last month). Richardson, in addition to being a very fulfilled stage actress (albeit one who died too young), was Liam Neeson’s beloved wife.

As of 2014, I can still read or watch interviews of Neeson and see that he still deeply misses his wife, even one in which he admits he has to keep himself working because he doesn’t want to be at home when somebody is at the door and it’s not her anymore.

Action movies had never been entirely absent from Neeson’s filmography (DarkmanThe Dead PoolBatman Begins, my very first time I saw him in a movie was as a child seeing Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace in theaters), but 2009 was the turning point of when Liam Neeson was suddenly being reinvented as a weathered and grizzly action star of earthy stature yet elegant presence. And from 2009 to 2015, you’d hard-pressed to pick a starring role of his that wasn’t an angry vengeful expert in tactics demanding violence and combat. His best-in-show voice role in The Lego Movie even parodies his screen persona.

And of course, all of these movies include a plot point involving the hero Neeson plays either dealing with his grief from a deceased female relative or having to save a deceased female relative from a grim fate.

I really don’t think I have to draw any lines between all these factors. Liam Neeson is unfortunately still dealing with his wife’s death and if or when he finally finds himself comfortable enough to move on, he will probably abandon his actor star status, but for right now… it’s clearly what he needs.

And while, in my opinion, The Grey is the best of these movies to come yet, I don’t think anybody could disagree that (quality aside) the French (though the main dialogue is English) Luc Besson-produced Taken trilogy (which he also co-writes with Mark Robert Kamen) has proven to be the quintessential map of how this span in Neeson’s career so far, essentially hallmarking where it started, where it continued to average degree, and where it started wearing itself out – we have in a row the second-best Neeson action film, the most-character less and functional one, and the out-and-out worst movie of his career (though I haven’t seen The Nut Job and you can’t make me!), hence why it’s so appealing to approach all three of them in one fell swoop and feel like you gained a lot from learning about Neeson’s career than you probably actually did.

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Taken, to begin with, is an interesting anomaly – it is the only one of the movies in this era to have been in production and released well before Richardson’s death, but it undoubtedly the movie that began this tread for Neeson’s career and we can especially pick out the scene that made him an action movie icon.

That done did it. Neeson didn’t have to so much as lift a pistol in any of the really impressive and fluid action setpieces that meld into each other for the rest of the movie’s thankfully brisk running time and we would have already had the man cemented as an action icon just from the restrained yet crackled way he threatens the men who kidnaps his daughter (Maggie Grace). The sound of his voice promises much unstoppable and chaotic violence with less fear on his face – juxtaposing the savagery of his words – of what’s to come and more fear of how far he’ll have to go. In retrospect, it reminds me of Bryan Cranston’s famous “I am the one who knocks” speech from Breaking Bad, a guy who wants to avoid having to be forced to do the things he is capable of doing. I mean, let me pull back a bit: this isn’t a GREAT PERFORMANCE by Neeson, a man who has proven all throughout his career up until then that he’s capable of giving those. Mills’ ultimatum doesn’t have all the depth and internal commentary that Cranston’s rant does, but we don’t need that depth or internal commentary. Sometimes less is more and Neeson gives Mills exactly the amount of presence he needs as an empty moving subject for the camera to follow and nothing more.

And you know what? That’s all the possible character or plot development we need. Taken takes the bare minimum in establishing former CIA Agent Bryan Mills’ (Neeson) estranged relationship with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and their daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) – even in that brief expository area of the movie, the movie is not content with being absent at least one action scene in the form Mills stop a pop star’s ridiculous assassination attempt – before speeding it up the daughter’s kidnapping and once we’re there all of Mills’ promises about the violence to come is met with.

This violence is brought forth by the ever involved eye of director Pierre Morel, a protege of Besson’s (his previous directorial debut was District B13) that knows well how to energize the film’s action setpieces so that well after Mills has escaped an explosion or shootout, we’re still just about ready to move on to the next deadly Bourne-esque anarchy that Mills is going to cause simply to find his daughter. And sure, there’s a lot of tactician work and detecting that takes place, but we’re also keeping our eye on how well his prey is aware of their scenario and moving in to start another fight. And my how giddy and fun these scenes are, even despite how obvious it is essentially nothing more than another usual blockbuster attempt at consequence-free bloodless death and destruction. Morel is no slouch in letting the rising tension of a dinner or an interrogation propel the film into the frenetic choreography Mills’ next fight demands and the result is making Taken as a film feel more and more jam-packed with its action content rather than crafting illusions of storytelling above it like a great cloth.

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It absolutely works to the movie’s benefit to be that bare bones of a story since Besson has trouble with his own movies on not only interjecting a bit too much involvement in characters and storytelling that simply never feel real flesh and blood to us. And even more so in trying to inject a lot of pseudointellectual elements into his films (Lucy, anybody?) but Taken even shrugs the possibility of it being a commentary on the reprehensible sex slave trade in Europe, probably because it would have occurred with the urgency of Reefer Madness. No, what really aids Morel and Neeson’s ability to elevate Taken from trashy action-thriller to memorable trashy action-thriller is how willing Besson and Kamen is to step back from their project to let Morel craft the explosive path Neeson’s character walks to get his daughter back home safe. Even once the mission is complete, the movie refuses to outstay its welcome – allowing one brief scene to act as a sign that the audience can take a breather and then just stopping (though I do have a problem with how dismissed another character’s fatality becomes to the leads). Yeah, Neeson + Morel… they made Taken what it is and Besson is humble enough to step back.

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Or at least, I’d have hoped if Taken 2 didn’t feel more like Besson trying to take the franchise into his own hands to remind everybody who was boss. Gone is Morel’s director’s seat, he’s now replaced by the hilariously named Olivier Megaton, another Besson protege who proclaims himself to be “the worst director in the world”. That seems like giving himself way too much credit, he wouldn’t get half of my mind based on Taken 2.

It’s just too pedestrian and a lot of that is based on how obviously it tries to squeeze out the idea that Taken was a movie narratively dense enough to warrant re-explore threads we didn’t think mattered. Taken 2  begins with Murad (Rade Serbedzija) the father of Marko, the most memorable of Taken‘s short-lived multiple antagonists, swearing vengeance on Mills for the death of his son.

Which is hokey and makes sense enough to warrant Taken 2‘s existence. But then there is the idea that pops in my head of Besson and Kamen asking aloud “Hey, you know what you fuckers loved about Taken? That’s right… the family storyline…” and so we spend maybe a third of the movie trying to pretend desperately that any ghost of chemistry between Neeson, Janssen, or Grace is present before finally getting on with its premise by having Lenore taken this time as well as *gasp* Mills!

And when he gets Taken, know what happens? The movie feels like it fucking halts. Like it just stops for a good while with nothing really going on except Kim avoiding her own kidnapping and Mills trying to communicate with her with never so much as a fear that Murad will return through the room to see Mills out of his cuffs or that anybody will be killed soon. The movie just politely asks us to wait it out until Mills and Kim finally get a connection and Mills gives her particular instructions that really feel like they set the movie off finally…

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But, here’s the thing… before I saw this movie, I actually spoiled it for myself by reading the Wikipedia synopsis and what happens at this point in the movie honestly sounded really cool to me: the idea that Kim throws grenades and Mills uses the noise to triangulate his position (public destruction be damned). But Megaton handles this in practice way too clumsily, not knowing how to capture any rhythm to either Kim’s sense of danger or Mills’ patience as well as just outright still refusing to give Mills any true time limit to look out for. It makes the sequence I looked most forward to feel like the slowest point of the movie and I’m talking about a movie that I was already complaining about feeling like it took 2 years to get to its point: being a goddamned action movie and re-introducing the unleash savagery of Bryan Mills’ particular set of skills.

And when the movie finally gets there, practically declaring that all the charms of Taken are back as an action film – it’s really just not there. There’s a prolonged car chase that just feels like a bunch of random landscape cuts biding its time so the movie can reach its 90 minute mark and a Turkish bath gun battle that serves as the climax and neither are as competently or sleekly done or even feel as exotic as Istanbul can be made to look as they probably would have been if Morel were given the reins of the film again.

Taken 2 is maybe a film that makes Liam Neeson feel his age with it just wasting time for a disappointing handling of action that follows a movie that blew minds in a pleasurable way.

DM-03656 – Liam Neeson and Forest Whitaker in TAKEN 3.

Taken 3, though… oooooh boy… that movie blows my mind in a very unpleasurable way. It’s a total mess.

Where Taken 2 tries to pretend it still has the fire of the first film in its heart, Taken doesn’t waste any energy trying to recreate the original… it just about decides Luc Besson just saw that there The Fugitive movie and LITERALLY PLOT POINT BY PLOT POINT REMAKES THAT MOVIE INSTEAD. Down to bringing in the very overqualified Forest Whitaker in to fill in the Tommy Lee Jones-type role in a performance that can’t decide if its trying to make a remarkably incompetent detective feel at least like a man with quirks and nuance or if Whitaker just wants to ham it up because he cannot believe the stuff he has to say. You will hear the word “bagels” more times than you expect for a film like this and the movie takes it entirely too seriously.

It’s really the most upsetting thing about Taken 3 that brings it down several levels – the fact that Taken 3 has some of the most ridiculous storytelling elements possible, including and especially Forest Whitaker eating evidence and nobody giving him shit for it and the most hamfisted pregnancy subplot you could imagine that adds nothing thematically to the story AND… the movie thinks this is heavy and serious stuff. The Boy Next Door came out earlier with totally laughable elements, but that movie felt like it laughed with us. Taken 3 finishes one of many choppy action sequences after slogging through even more half-hour-feeling-like-half-a-decade relationship development between Mills and Kim and Lenore and Lenore’s husband Stuart (played by Xander Berkeley in the previous two films, here now replaced by actor Dougray Scott, which should telegraph exactly how the character develops over the film. Casting Scott and expecting us not to recognize his type is like casting Sean Bean and expecting not to wait for his death) and then turns around with a smug smirk expecting us to be impressed and we can’t lie to this movie.

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But as bad this script may be – and it is possibly the worst in Besson’s career, with its sole exaggerated bigness of its scenarios and none of the ambition that type of storytelling needs. It’s the epic version of a balloon getting poked by a needle and flying around the room with a giant fart sound – it would maybe be only a teensy bit more tolerable than it is now if Taken 3 didn’t have the worst editing ever. But oh my, it does, with sound panning out of relation to the shot during discussions and barely being able to keep up with the film when it decides to kickstart itself into being an action movie.

And the shots themselves. Do not keep still. The camera has to float around and the cuts cannot have longer than five seconds in between. It doesn’t matter that this sort of visual style is incoherent, the movie feels like it cannot still for two seconds. I can’t call it ADHD before it doesn’t have any of that exhuberant hyperactivity that even the worst of those types of flashy styles get, but I feel like calling it cinematic Parkinsons’ would be so much more insincere. But the movie has a talk between Kim and Mills (that goes nowhere by the way – Kim intends to tell Mills about her pregnancy and then changes her mind) and it somehow has a mind to make it look like Mills is having goddamn shellshock while he smiles and talks shit about a problem child behind him and that’s ALL the editing’s fault. It would just feel like useless father-daughter without that constant cutting, but instead, it’s a war zone for Mills. And worst of all, this cutting is not at all intense, if they remarkably boring car chases and firefights are any sign. It’s only fast and that’s it and it’s a sign that Megaton (who directs for a second time, because I guess Besson was fine with just one good Taken film) has brought the beginning of the end for maybe more than just this franchise, but hopefully his career. He really really wants that “worst director in the world” badge real bad.

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The biggest tell about Taken 3 is that Neeson’s usually weary-but-intense performance as Mills’ for the majority of the last two films here abandons all that intensity – Neeson now looks like he’s just about keel over. Not because he’s not capable of making his action sequences feel weighty and solid, but he’s just delivering most of his lines even before the discovery of Lenore’s body with a whole lot of disinterest and uninvolvement in the characters around him… the very same characters the script to Taken 3 SWEARS are most important to him. I don’t if he’s by now almost through with his healing over Richardson’s death, but Neeson’s bored manner around him says one thing for sure: “I’m done with these films”. You simply can’t read his nonchalance, his anti-energy to the film any other way.

The only angry-Neeson-action film to follow Taken 3 was Run All Night. From here on forth, he was cast in Ted 2SilenceA Monster Calls, Operation Chromite, and ew… a cameo in Entourage. Not a one of them hinting at the possibility of him revisiting these types of action movies anymore.

The fact that I missed Run All Night and the movie before Taken 3A Walk Among the Tombstones, after dedicating a lot of my filmgoing experience over the turn of the decade to being a faithful follower of Neeson’s angry action flicks should also say that I by now share Neeson’s complete fatigue over this trend in role choices. Taken 3‘s self-implosion of story and action just leaves one deflated and I can’t think of any chance of him going back to these movies (Neeson felt reluctant to return to the franchise in the first place). That Taken 3 promises to be the finale of the story that took Neeson’s career to this place is the only worthwhile thing about the movie and may it never both coming back.

Here marks the end of an era – and it only makes sense that Bryan Mills was there at the beginning and there at the end.

Take it all away now.

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